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How do you work with a client after letting them down?

February 9, 2011 · 18 comments

I have repeatedly missing promised target dates for work to be completed for an important client because of a variety of personal issues. It feels like a litany of excuses, and now I don’t know what to say to them.

I enjoy their work, my (web development) work for them has been good quality, and they have been happy with it. The problem is that all the delays mean I’m no longer trustworthy to them. I’m ready to complete the next phase of their project, but am not sure what to say to them.

Any suggestions for dealing with a situation like this? Of course “Get over it, get in touch, get started,” is never bad advice 🙂 but I’m wondering if someone might have additional helpful references or tips.

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February 10, 2011 at 1:37 am
1 Kevin Casey February 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Dave, is it possible to contact you directly with a media inquiry? Thanks.


2 Dave Larson February 12, 2011 at 12:53 am

Have sent you an email 🙂


3 Alan February 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm

First of all, I’d be a little kind to yourself. Life has a way of pulling us away from work and vice versa. All you can do is recognize what happened and move forward.

I’m in client service and have found that frank acknowledgement, honesty and a commitment to make adjustments are the best ways to move forward.

Because this is a somewhat delicate conversation, I also wouldn’t leave it to email. While admissions like these are never easy, I follow a pretty strict “bad news is always a voice conversation” policy and it works pretty well.

Good luck.


4 Dave Larson February 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Great point on the first step Alan—picking up the phone. Especially as it seems a little heavier than usual today 🙂

Appreciate also the message of self-kindness. And love that avatar you use for your comments!


5 Adrienne February 9, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Knowing how to apologize effectively works great for any relationship!

As a small business owner/perfectionist, I relate to letting clients down from time to time. It happens & it stinks. From a client’s perspective we know perfection doesn’t exist; however, I’d want the let down to stop if it was impacting my bottom line. That said- direct, candid honesty is so refreshing & appreciated. If you can’t stop the let down completely. Set/reset realistic honest expectations & allow the client to make an informed decision about what comes next.

Practically speaking, I suggest you hit all the aspects of the Chapman Thomas Languages of Apology. These aspects give the best chance of smoothing the waters by saying what you want to say in the best way it needs to be said for the client to receive it.

1. Express your regret
2. Accept responsibility
3. Make restitution
4. Genuinely repent
5. Request forgiveness

All the best to you!


6 Dave Larson February 9, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Ah, established best practices…and a link! Wonderful 🙂 Thanks very much for not just actionable advice, but wisdom that can be applied in many situations.

If I may butcher a well-known phrase, your advice is “the cake under the icing” Adrienne!


7 Adrienne February 11, 2011 at 9:13 pm

wow. I might have to quote you on that!



8 David Hira February 9, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Don’t just “tell them” you are sorry. “Show them” you are sorry. You can fake like you care but you can’t fake being there.

Make the trip to see them. Invite them to a lunch or to dinner at a nice place. Tell them how sorry you are. Give them an additional service that they would like to have for free. Give them a hand-written “my commitment to you” in a frame. Tell them what back up plan you now have in place should you get sick again. Ask for their forgiveness.

Then, enjoy one another’s company. Don’t forget to be more “interested” than interesting!

We all make mistakes and have things happen that are beyond our control. All human beings should (!) understand that things happen. If you have a good partnership with this client they will respond positively to you. Do good!


9 Dave Larson February 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Thanks David. That’s near exactly what I did last time…so obviously I think you give great advice! I’m now working on a backup plan…and looking for a nice frame 🙂


10 dahlia February 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm

In agreement with previous comments. You must be honest about the situation, but offer that your situation does not excuse the results – or lack thereof. Offer a timeline and method by which you’ll achieve the services he’s requested. And offer something over and above what he has asked for, and do so free of charge. We’ve probably all been there at some point or another. Good luck! Be well…


11 Dave Larson February 9, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Thanks so much, Dahlia, for this, and all your comments here and elsewhere! Great advice.


12 Joanne Hay February 9, 2011 at 11:56 am

1. apologize and admit there is no excuse even it’s to do with your health
2. Let them know you understand they shouldn’t have to suffer for your own issues
3. Be yourself – tell them what happened
4. Manage their expectation – let them know how your health is now and how it may affect the next project (if it will) and tell them how you will deal with it this time so you won’t delay like last time
5. What’s in it for them – let them know what you can bring to the table, why shouldnt they use someone else
6. Ask- ask for an opportunity for you to make things right

Hope it helps. Good luck!
I think you are very sincere and I don’t know you. If your client really knows you, he may understand. Make things right by doing it


13 Dave Larson February 9, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Good, actionable advice…that hits the nail on the head. Thanks so much, Joanne!


14 Jason February 9, 2011 at 11:52 am

How timely. I am in the middle of writing an email to a client to explain why I feel (and I stress the ‘I feel’) I have let them down. I have been delinquent on deadlines due to other work commitments, and personal and family illnesses. The worst thing is – it’s just that client that always seems to be on the receiving end. I know that we are so far entrenched in our current project, and they like my work, that I will not lose this business this time. But it is so difficult.

The approach I am going to take is complete honesty – revealing as much as I possibly can without making it seem like a laundry list of excuses. And, of course I am going to offer a humble, and sincere apology.

I think they are very decent people, and I hope they will understand. Of course, I think the best thing I can do is to complete the rest of the project, to a high standard, and on time. I’m sure that by doing that, they will be happy at the end, even if they are a little frustrated now.

I’d love to know how people really approach things like this. I’ll stay tuned to see what others say. And I hope you will share your course of action, and its results.



15 Dave Larson February 9, 2011 at 12:30 pm

“Complete the rest of the project, to a high standard.” Boy, I’ve never been more motivated to do that! Thanks for sharing your approach, and sincere best wishes in it working out well for both of you.


16 Philippa February 9, 2011 at 11:44 am

Go to them with an honest apology and a plan for the way forward, which is achievable for you. Then stick to it. If health issues are on-going then you need to adjust your pace, and make sure your promises are what you-with-your-issues can achieve. Good luck and get well.


17 Dave Larson February 9, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Thanks for the wisdom and timeliness of your reply..and for your kind concern and support!


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